Friday, 1 October 2010

A Pioneer of Women's Writing in Macau

A Pioneer of Women's Writing in Macau: Deolinda da Conceição*

It is often the case in emerging literatures that one work assumes a particular importance when a country’s literary history comes to be written. One only has to think of Mozambican author Luís Bernardo Honwana’s lone collection of short stories, We Killed Many-Dog and Other Stories, and the special place it has in the literature of Mozambique, or Alan Paton’s iconic novel of apartheid South Africa, Cry the Beloved Country. In Macau, Deolinda da Conceição’s collection of stories, Cheong-sam – A Cabaia (Cheongsam – the Kebaya), published in 1956, occupies a special place, not only in the literature of Macau, but in the wider world of lusophone literature and, arguably, of the literature of China. Six of the twenty-seven tales included in the collection were translated into English and feature in the anthology of Macau prose writing, Visions of China: Stories from Macau, published by the Hong Kong University Press in 2002.

Deolinda da Conceição was a unique figure in a number of ways. Born in Macau in 1914, like many Macanese she migrated to Shanghai in the 1930s in search of better opportunities than the Portuguese territory could, at that stage, provide. In due course, and by that time the mother of two children, she was forced to flee southwards before the Japanese invasion and occupation of Shanghai, and headed for Hong Kong, where she taught in a school for Portuguese refugees. In 1941, when the Japanese overran Hong Kong, she was briefly interned in a concentration camp. After the end of the war, and by this time a divorcee, she joined the staff in 1947 of the newly established Macau paper, Notícias de Macau, whose editor, Herman Machado Monteiro, was a Republican exile from the Salazar dictatorship. Her colleagues on the paper included other Macanese intellectuals, such as Luís Gonzaga Gomes, the author of unparalleled studies on the popular Chinese cultural heritage of Macau, and José dos Santos Ferreira, the main exponent of literature in ‘patois’, the local creole language. Deolinda da Conceição was the first female journalist in Macau, and was responsible for the women’s page of Notícias de Macau, but some of the stories subsequently published in her sole collection, originally appeared in the newspaper. She was therefore very much of her time, in the sense that she lived through a period of considerable social change and political conflict in China, while also witnessing first hand the brutalities of war. She was also in advance of the age in which she lived. As a divorcee, at least until her second marriage in 1948, and a journalist at a time when there were few women in the professions, and living in what was still a highly conservative society (as a divorcee, she was even barred from teaching), she must have seemed a disturbingly free spirit in the sheltered world of post-war Macau.

Her stories reflect, in their themes, the cultural fusions and confusions of Macau and China during the first half of the twentieth century, and her particular focus is the situation of women, very often caught between traditional expectations of their role in society or within marriage, and the new possibilities open to them as a result of Western influences in China’s great coastal cities. To some extent, the very title of the collection symbolizes the multicultural background against which these female dramas are enacted, for the cheongsam, the one-piece dress adapted from the northern Chinese qípáo, and worn by upper-class women in Shanghai from the 1920s, came to synthesize the process of modernizing East-West fusion in the area of women’s fashion and became a symbol of feminine allurement. On the other hand, the kebaya, a type of long blouse, was the product of a much earlier process of fusion. There is a debate about the origins of this garment, but what we can be reasonably sure of is that it was introduced by the Portuguese into Southern China from Southeast Asia not long after the foundation of Macau. By the time the cheongsam was developed, the kebaya was therefore a traditional, native form of clothing among Chinese women, so that the journey undertaken by Deolinda’s female characters, is also a journey between the kebaya and the cheongsam, between tradition and modernity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the title story of the collection, ‘Cheongsam’, which was also one of the stories included in the anthology mentioned above. It centres on a young Chinese couple who had married in obedience to their parents’ wishes. The young wife, educated in the West, has unwittingly grown away from her traditional Chinese cultural roots, and to some extent is on a journey of no return. As a consequence of this, there is a likelihood of later incompatibility with her traditionally educated Chinese husband, and this begins to occur following the Japanese invasion and the couple’s forced flight southwards, first to Shanghai, and then to a city we assume to be Macau. The husband’s inability to provide for his wife and their children obliges her to look for work as a nightclub hostess, which enables the family to eat, but has a severe effect on the husband’s self-esteem, eventually leading to jealousy, resentment and murderous instincts. If the outcome of the story is tragic, Deolinda concentrates both on the social and economic influences leading to this outcome, and also on the moral issues surrounding the wife’s actions, not to mention the husband’s initial acceptance of them. The more the wife frequents rich foreign men in what amounts to high-class prostitution, the more she despises her husband and forgets her duties as a mother. And yet what is the underlying cause of her behaviour and the ultimate tragedy? Is it the war and hardship? Is it the fact that they have married to fulfil their parents’ rather than their own wishes? Or is it the wife’s pursuit of a dream for which her Western education is partly to blame? It is this more universal, moral problem that we find ourselves reflecting upon, and which transforms this story into an exemplary tale that we can all somehow identify with. The same could be said of other stories in the collection, from the tale of a Eurasian fashion model who, as a result of a disfiguring accident, is forced to give up her glamorous lifestyle and rethink her mission in life in a positive way, to a poor girl’s obsession with possessing a jade ring, and the moral price she might be prepared to pay in order to do so. Other tales focus on the theme of inter-racial love, and the tragedy of shame and prejudice besetting the offspring of such relationships in what was still a profoundly colonial society. As a product herself of Macau’s melting pot, the theme was particularly close to the author’s heart.

We cannot tell how Deolinda da Conceição’s work might have developed over the years of profound change that were to follow, for she died prematurely in 1957, not long after returning from her only trip to Portugal, a country with which she, like many Macanese, strongly identified as her fatherland. We cannot tell whether that loyalty might have been subtly re-defined if she had lived to witness, albeit at a distance, the long drawn-out colonial wars in Africa, and the growing obstinacy of an ailing dictatorship that only came to an end in 1974. More probably, she might have continued to chronicle the lives of the Chinese and Macanese during the topsy-turvy years of the Cultural Revolution, whose effects were felt so closely in her native city. What we are left with, however, is a collection of stories that form a unique contribution to literature in Portuguese, as well as chronicling the moral choices faced by those who are the victims of social injustice or of war, or occasionally the perpetrators of it. They are stories that still have a relevance today, and upon which we can all ponder.

* First published in the Macau Daily Times (Weekend Magazine), 19 July, 2009.

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